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"Invictus," Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort, is a well made inspirational film with an important message, but it falls short of greatness.
The story is about South Africa after apartheid and the struggle to keep the racially divided country together. Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is the newly elected president who has been given this task. With mass poverty, an economic crisis, and open hatred between the races, he decides to focus on South Africa's rugby team. He enlists their captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to motivate his team to win the rugby world cup, which is a much bigger deal in the rest of the world than it is in North America.
"Invictus" is not just a motivational sports movie, though. The focus is more on the political side of things.
As Mandela enters the office for the first day of his presidency, most of the white office workers are packing up and leaving, assuming they are to be fired. Mandela allows them all to stay and he also makes a point to diversify his security staff (more on them later). He realizes that these small-scale changes will not accomplish much and he finds his solution at an appearance at a rugby match.
Mandela notices that the white fans cheer for South Africa and the black fans cheer for England (or whoever happens to be playing South Africa), which is exactly what he did when he was imprisoned. Mandela realizes that "petty revenge" won't solve anything, so instead of doing away with the team's traditions, he encourages all of South Africa to embrace the team.
This sounds all well and good, but it's a bit hard to get into a movie in which all the action takes place through a sport that is obscure at best to an American audience. I understood that the games were about more than winning, but I had almost no idea what was going on during the matches. This is actually a joke in the film as the black characters in the film are just as baffled by the game as the audience in the theater.
I get the joke, but I wanted multiple, intense rugby scenes that focus on the simpler parts of the game rather than a few gags in which characters ask, "What happened? Is that good?" Eastwood does accomplish this in the final game with some great sound work and slow motion, but it was too little too late for the rugby.
Regardless of the cultural divide, the importance of the games is easy to understand. I may not have understood what was happening most of the time, but I knew how I felt when it was over.
This is one of the most hopeful, uplifting movies I have seen in recent memory. In a cinematic world that seems to focus more and more on misery, death and violence, it was nice to watch a movie about human beings who overcome hate. Is that sappy? Maybe, but it's also refreshing.
But the movie does crossover into extremely sappy territory when it comes to song selection. Eastwood goes with an original song titled "Colorblind" that features lyrics such as, "it's not just a game." The music is too obvious and it's stating things that Eastwood has already accomplished.
The musical missteps and confusing rugby scenes aside, this is a solid film.
Freeman and Damon strengthen the film immensely. I don't think they'll win Oscars for their work or anything, but they do carry the film very well. Freeman is great, (as he should be, since Mandela himself has said that Freeman is the only actor who could play him) but his performance is really just a great impersonation. He does convey a presidential authority in every scene, though, and he made the film amusing at times.
Damon is fine; it's just that his character didn't have much to do. His performance in "The Informant!" was much more impressive.
What makes this movie a bit more interesting, though, is the fact that the focus isn't solely on Mandela and Pienaar. A subplot about the newly diverse security detail supplies much of the heart of the film. Add to that subplot scenes of the rugby players teaching kids about the sport, a child trying to listen to the game alongside police officers and regular people coming together to watch the championship game and you have an encompassing picture of how important that one rugby match was to an entire country.
Despite the slight missteps, Eastwood crafts an inspirational film that manages to (barely) get past an audience's ignorance of rugby and show that a country can overcome severe differences, with the help of some born leaders and a common goal, even if that goal involves a sport in which it is really hard to tell how goals are scored.
A Cannelton resident, Harris is a movie buff and blogger who posts reviews of films at www.canneltoncritic.com.